The power of friendship is an amazing thing. There are people who spend a good deal of time on social media communicating with their friends. Some have Facebook friends that number in the hundreds and even thousands. But how deep can those relationships possibly be? If we’re honest with ourselves, we understand the vast majority of those who have friended us are not really that close. It’s hard not to wonder if some folks are just lonely and enjoy the hopeful touch of a fleeting relationship that makes them feel as if they belong somewhere, even if it’s only on the computer.
There must be some value in being connected to a lot of people, even on a superficial level. Otherwise, we wouldn’t engage in those activities the way we do. There’s an inherent longing for acceptance or at least some degree of inclusion within a desired circle of common acquaintances. Social scientists have conducted research that suggests our social capabilities are limited, with some estimates pegging social networks from around 250 to about 5,500 people. A paper from MIT published in 1960 projects that Franklin D. Roosevelt, an especially friendly and gregarious guy, may have had as many as 22,500 acquaintances. That’s without help from the Internet!
Another study using the exchange of Christmas cards as an indicator for closeness put the average person’s friend group at around 120 people. An article from the American Journal of Sociology says that however vast your networks may be, your inner circle tends to be much smaller. The average American trusts only ten to twenty people. If you analyze your personal relationships very carefully, there are probably not even that many you would dare share your deepest thoughts with. Maybe only a handful. And that might be a stretch. From 1984 to 2004, from a report called Social Isolation in America, the average number of confidants that people reported having, decreased from three to two, a sad case for many of us because it’s been shown that people who have strong social relationships tend to live longer than those who don’t.
Carole King once penned this sentiment in a song: “You’re so far away. Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?” The fact is, few of us do. Americans have the luxury of taking advantage of opportunities that move them away from the place where they grew up. In fact, they may have grown up in several places. It seems normal to us. It’s a big country with private enterprise offering unlimited prospects for those who pursue them. But our mobility comes with a price.
In the end, we desire companionship that endures. That’s one of the important reasons we get married, to share our lives, our thoughts, our fears, our triumphs, our affection, with someone we trust and who has our best interests at heart. And it’s another reason we have children. Aside from the instinct for the survival of our species, our extended family of children, grandchildren, aunts, uncle, cousins and siblings can give us a lifetime of potentially close personal relationships that transcend blood lines. God said in the beginning, “It’s not good for man to be alone.”
So what are we to do? One writer suggests a good place to begin is not to dismiss the humble acquaintance. Interacting with people with whom you have weak social ties can have a meaningful influence on your sense of well-being. The academics are clear as if you had any real need for them: longing for closeness and connection is a basic human need. It’s good to realize that, for the most part, you are surrounded by lonely people. They need you as much as you need them.
A University of Kansas study found that it takes about 50 hours of socializing to go from acquaintance to casual friend, an additional 40 hours to become a real friend, and a total of 200 hours to become a close friend. Reviving dormant social ties can be especially rewarding. Reconnected friends can quickly recapture much of the trust they previously built, while offering each other a dash of novelty drawn from whatever they’ve been up to in the meantime. And if all else fails, you could start randomly confiding in people you don’t know that well. Self-disclosure makes you more likable, and as a bonus, you are more inclined to like those to whom you have bared your soul.
It was no small thing when Jesus called his disciples friends (in John 15). The studies mentioned show there are different levels of relationship determined by the amount of time you spend with others. The disciples, over the three years or so before the Lord’s crucifixion, must have spent a lot of time together, enough probably to be considered close friends. There were some who were probably closer than the others, evidenced by the mere mention of their names in the New Testament. Peter, James and John come to mind, along with Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Mary Magdalene.
When Jesus said, “You are my friends if you keep my commandments,” he made it clear his friendship was conditional. But the condition seems fairly simple, “And this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” That prompts us to jump over to 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul says that love is patient, kind, not envious, not arrogant, does not dishonor others, not self-seeking, not easily angered, doesn’t hold a grudge, push back or look for revenge, does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth, always protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres. All virtue is contained within it and the Holy Spirit is the keeper of it. The foundation for friendship is forgiveness and humility.
“How good and how pleasant it is when brethren dwell together in unity,” the psalmist wrote (Ps. 133), who likened that experience with anointing oil and the morning dew. “For there [in the place of unity] the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore.” Helen Keller once said, “Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.” Jesus said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” If all other friendships fail, remember, there is one that will not.